Activism for Introverts: Help the Library of Congress Transcribe Suffragist Letters & Diaries

The first in a series of posts exploring Activism for Introverts.

Voter turnout in 2020 is poised to be the highest in decades, if not the century. Yet, there’s no indication as to which party will benefit from an expanded electorate. Nothing is certain, and arguably the most important form of activism we can do right now is appealing to apathetic friends and family, helping people to register, and fighting racist gerrymandering and voter suppression across the country.

At the same time, as we strive and struggle to create the kind of future we want to live in, it’s important to look back and learn from those who have fought and struggled before us.

Nearly 16,000 pages of suffragist letters, speeches, diary entries and newspaper articles are available to review and transcribe on By the People, a crowdsourcing platform launched by the Library of Congress in 2018. The goal is to make the library’s collection fully word searchable and easier to read, for scholars and lay historians alike.

Anyone can contribute and be a virtual volunteer. In an ideal world, this work would be deemed important enough to warrant it being a paid position, and I would not argue with anyone who disputes that this a form of activism and more a problematic instance of undervalued labor.

Still, as an introvert, women’s history nerd, and an avid letter and journal writer, for me this is both a valuable and interesting way to spend a small portion of my day now and then.

For you fellow literature lovers, it’s worth noting that you may also transcribe the poetry, letters and other writings of Walt Whitman (though, as much as I love his poetry, it should be noted that increasingly scholars are examining Whitman’s racism and questioning how inclusive Whitman’s vision of democratic society truly was). 

100 Years of Women’s Suffrage?

Similarly, while it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate suffragettes and women’s activism, we should not ignore the fact that the movement did not benefit all women equally. According to mainstream media and whitewashed versions of history, June 2019 marked the centennial of women’s suffrage. Yet, in fact, it marked the centennial of white women’s suffrage.

It will be 2024 before we can celebrate 100 years of Native Americans being able to vote, 2043 before we can celebrate Chinese immigrants (including women) being able to vote, and 2065 – 2065! – until we can celebrate 100 years of women of color being able to vote. And even that will be contingent on whether white people speak up and take action on discriminatory voter suppression and the erosion of this most basic right for people of color.

This is something we should care about for its own sake. As we hurtle towards the 2020 presidential election, the voter suppression stories that we’re bound to hear about aren’t just about which party will win or lose; they’re about an ongoing history of racist disenfranchisement and white people’s refusal to see what doesn’t affect us, or tendency to only care about something to the extent that it will impact us.

If we only care about voting rights in terms of strengthening the blue wave, then our concern–however well-intentioned–is ultimately rooted in our own comfort and advantage, as it always has been.

New Forms of Truth Will Arise

Nowadays, the opposition to women’s suffrage is incomprehensible to any reasonable, justice-minded person. Those who voted against women’s suffrage “stood firmly on the dark side of history, making claims about a woman’s role that would end a politician’s career today,” writes Rebecca Ruiz for Mashable

“Fighting for equality made suffragettes unpopular,” she continues. Their arguments were widely ridiculed and treated as suspect. A woman’s place was in the home, not in the voting booth or public sphere. Their subordination was natural and simply the way things are and should be.

I think of this sometimes when I try to speak up for the rights of animals and the systemic exploitation and injustices done unto them. Animals are not our property–their lives belong to them–and yet the use of these living beings as a means to our ends is seen as natural, inevitable, the way things are and should be. The fight for animal equality has little support, even amongst progressives with a heart for justice and compassion.

As an advocate for animal rights, it’s distressing and bewildering when people are unable or unwilling to recognize the truth about the systemic abuse of animals or to acknowledge it as a valid justice issue. I am not comparing women (or any human being) to animals, nor insisting that their oppression is, experientially, the same. Yet, I do believe that both forms of subjugation are rooted in similar hierarchical binary systems.

It was interesting, then, to note that some suffragettes did not limit their fight for equality to humans, but instead understood the interconnectedness between different forms of oppression. Vegetarian food fueled the British suffrage movement. As one suffragette said: “Vegetarianism aims so directly, as we women aim, at the abolition of the unregenerate doctrine of physical force.” The Vegan Feminist Network has compiled a long list of vegetarian and vegan women’s and animal’s rights activists, including British, Irish and American suffragettes.

It was comforting, too, to come across this passage in an 1851 letter from Angela Grimké to Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

The very truths you are now contending for, will, in fifty years, be so completely imbedded in public opinion that no one need say one word in their defense; whilst at the same time new forms of truth will arise to test the faithfulness of the pioneer minds of that age, and so on eternally.

Some believe that eating meat will be considered unthinkable to many fifty years from now. Fifty years is far too long to wait, but I trust that a day will soon come when opposition to animal rights will, too, be incomprehensible, and that in time no one need say one word in their defense because they will no longer be purposefully bred and killed for our profit and pleasure.

At the same time, I am reminded that I didn’t always recognize this truth myself, and that there are no doubt any number of other truths that I am reluctant to uncover and acknowledge. As Grimké wrote, new forms of truth will eternally arise to test the limits of our compassion and the consistency of our values. I strive to stay on the right side of history, no matter how unpopular or misunderstood that might make me.

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